Did elders in the saints’ fellowships acts as ‘rulers’?

On the translation and meaning of Hebrews 13:7, 17 and 24 and certain other passages.

For the latest version of this document, click here: www.biblepages.net/nea040.htm


Some have claimed that elders in the saints’ fellowships acted as “rulers”. Is that correct? Were the saints really “ruled by elders”? Many bible-translators have made it seem so, but what does the Greek text of the relevant New Testament passages actually say?

This study takes a closer look at the translation and meaning of Hebrews 13:7, 17 and 24 and some similar passages. It will be shown that the concept of elders as “rulers” is based on misquotations and misleading translations.

A note: In this article, the word “saints” refers to those who received the Holy Spirit in the first century.

The basics.

Consider these words of Jesus:

Matthew 23:8 “But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 “And do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. 10 “And do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ. (NASB77)

Those are clear words. The disciples were brothers – equal – and none of them was to try to set himself “over” the others. They had only one spiritual leader – Jesus – and only one spiritual father – God the Father in Heaven.

It is true that Jesus spoke those words to his disciples, people of the first century, but certainly, that instruction can serve as a guideline even for believers in the twenty-first century.

Please note that the saints did not have any mortal priests. The resurrected Jesus was their only priest.

The article nsa060.htm considers who has biblical, spiritual or religious authority – that is, the question, who can speak for God?

The article nsa070.htm takes a closer look at the words and concepts “clergy” and “laity”.

Some notes.

Someone might claim that Matthew 23:8–10 refers to “servant leadership”. But, as anyone with open eyes can see, that is not what those verses mean. – It appears that the concept “servant leadership” was introduced around 1970, by a certain American writer. The article nea030.htm has more on that subject.

Consider this: If we look for the word “leader” in the New Testament part of the 1769 edition of king James’ bible, this is the only passage we find:

Matthew 15: […] 12 Then came his disciples, and said unto him, Knowest thou that the Pharisees were offended, after they heard this saying? 13 But he answered and said, Every plant, which my heavenly Father hath not planted, shall be rooted up. 14 Let them alone: they be blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch. (KJV1769)

Again, that is the only passage where the KJV1769 NT contains the word “leader”. And, that was something Jesus said regarding the Pharisees who had made themselves “religious leaders” in Judea.

Many bible-translations contain wordings which could cause casual bible-readers to think that the apostle Paul told people to follow him as their “leader”. But, a closer study of the Greek text of the relevant passages makes it clear that he did not do that. What he did, was instead that he told people to imitate the example which he and his companions had set, in regard to certain things. The article nma030.htm has more on this, including the nature of that example.

What Jesus taught his disciples in regard to ‘ruling’.

We read:

Matthew 20:20 Then the mother of Zebediah’s sons came to him with her sons, bowing to the ground, and begging a favour. 21 ​“What is it that you want?” he asked. “I want you to say,” she replied, “that in your Kingdom these two sons of mine may sit, one on your right, and the other on your left.” […] 24 On hearing of this, the ten others were very indignant about the two brothers. 25 Jesus, however, called the ten to him, and said: “The rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them as you know, and their great men oppress them. 26 ​Among you it is not so. 27 ​No, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to take the first place among you, must be your slave; 28 ​just as the Son of Man came, not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (20CNT)

In the last part of verse 27, the Greek word behind the translation “slave” is doulos. Here is a passage where the apostle Paul used that word:

2 Corinthians 4:5 For we are not proclaiming ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your slaves [Greek doulos] because of Jesus. (HCSB, comment added)

It appears that Paul was actually saying this:

2 Corinthians 4:5 For we do not proclaim ourselves [as lords] but Jesus the Messiah as the Lord, and ourselves as your slaves for the sake of Jesus.

Please note that the above-quoted Matthew 20:25–28 and 2 Corinthians 4:5 do not refer to “servant leadership”. Again, the article nea030.htm has more on that phrase and concept.

The ‘rulers’ of Hebrews 13:7.

Many translators have put into Hebrews 13:7 such words as “rulers”, “leaders”, “authority”, “superiors” or “prelates”. In some translations, the persons in question are even made into “presidents” or “sovereigns”. But, that verse refers to certain people of Old Testament times and has nothing to do with “prelates” or “rulers”.

Some translations make it clear that that verse is about persons of the past, persons who had died before the first century when that epistle was written. Likewise, some make it clear that it is about considering how those persons had ended their lives, and imitating their faith. But, even those translations tend to have “leaders” or “rulers” in that verse. Here is an example of that:

Hebrews 13:6 So that we fearlessly say, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid: what can man do to me?” 7 Remember your former leaders—it was they who brought you God’s Message. Bear in mind how they ended their lives, and imitate their faith. (WEY)

Regarding verse 7 – first, let us consider the words “bear in mind how they ended their lives”. Those words do not refer to “rulers” or “leaders”. It is obvious that the apostle was talking about persons who had died a long time before he wrote that letter. That is, certain prophets and other persons of OT times who were oppressed, tortured and killed. These ones:

Hebrews 11:36 Others again were tested by cruel mockery and by scourging; yes, and by chains and imprisonment. 37 They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, they were tried by temptation, they were killed with the sword. They went from place to place in sheepskins or goatskins, enduring want, oppression and cruelty. 38 (They were men of whom the world was not worthy.) They wandered across deserts and mountains, or hid themselves in caves and in holes in the ground. (WEY)

Those were the persons whom Hebrews 13:7 refers to and whose faith the apostle told the saints to imitate. Those were the persons who “brought God’s message” (or “spoke the word of God”), same verse. Read on:

Regarding the first part of that verse (where the above-quoted Weymouth version has “remember your former leaders”) – here is a translation of the Greek text, along with some of the context and clarifying notes:

Hebrews 13:5 […] For he himself has said, I will never leave you nor forsake you.” 6 So we may boldly say: The Lord is my helper; I will not fear. What can man do to me? 7 Remember those going before you on the way[a] those who delivered to you the word of God. [b] Consider how they ended their lives. Imitate their faith.

a Verse 7, “remember those going before you on the way”, which is to say, “those who walked the same road before you”. The Greek wording is mnêmoneuete tôn hêgoumenôn humôn. In that phrase, the word hêgoumenôn is a form of the verb hêgeomai. Here is point 1 in the entry on that verb, in ‘Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon’ by Liddell and Scott (Clarendon Press, 1889):

I. Dep. to go before, lead the way, Hom., etc.:—c. dat. pers. to lead the way for him, guide, conduct, id=Hom.:—also, ὁδὸν ἡγήσασθαι to go before on the way, Lat. praeire viam, Od. […]

b Verse 7, “those who delivered to you the word of God” – that is, prophets and similar persons of Old Testament times. Here, the apostle told the Jewish saints whom he was writing to, to consider the lives of those people of old, and what happened to them. They had “treaded the same path” (of faith, and also of suffering) as the saints were now treading in the first century.

Summarising this point: Hebrews 13:5–7 has nothing to do with “ruling”. The apostle was reminding the saints whom he was writing to, that even they had to be prepared for trouble, including torture and death, and that they were to have courage and put their trust in the Lord Jesus, no matter what.

Hebrews 13:24.

Also Hebrew 13:17 will be studied here, but before that, let us first take a look at verse 24. Just as in verse 7, even in verse 24 the Greek text has the verb hêgeomai.

A number of translations have in the first part of verse 24 such wordings as “salute all your leaders”, “salute all them that have the rule over you”, or something similar. The makers of the Catholic DR1899 made it to “salute all your prelates”. (The Latin word praelatus means “one preferred”, that is, someone who is “over” the others.)

Those wordings do not agree with what Jesus said, as recorded in for instance Matthew 23:8–10 and 20:25–28 which were quoted and discussed earlier. Also: Those who have studied the New Testament with care, know that the saints did not have any “prelates” or other mortal priests. The resurrected Jesus was their only priest. – So, what do we make of verse 24 in Hebrews 13?

Consider this translation:

Hebrews 13:24 Salute all them who are guiding you, and all the saints: they from Italy, salute you. (EB)

What was this with “guiding”? In the Greek text, the verb in question is hêgeomai which we find also in the earlier discussed verse 7 (“remember those going before you on the way”).

In contrast to verse 7 which refers to certain persons of Old Testament times, verse 24 refers to persons in the saints’ own day, in the first century. That is, the apostles and others who had been converted first and “showed the way”, acting as examples for others.

In short: Hebrews 13:24 has nothing to do with “prelates” or “rulers”.

Hebrews 13:17.

Even in verse 17, many bible-versions have wordings which can cause casual readers to think that elders in the saints’ fellowships acted as “rulers”. Here is an example of how that verse is “traditionally” translated:

Hebrews 13:17 Obey [c] them that have the rule [d] over you, and submit [e] yourselves: for they watch for your souls, [f] as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you. (WBS, note signs added)

That translation is severely misleading, in more than one way. For sorting out this matter, it is necessary to consider certain details in the Greek text of that verse. See the following notes.

c In verse 17, where the above-quoted WBS has “obey”, the Greek text has peithesthe (peithô). The apostle was not talking about “obeying” some men as “rulers”. Primarily, the verb peithô had to do with persuasion; even the above-quoted WBS renders peithô in other NT passages as “persuade”, more than 20 times. In short: The first part of Hebrews 13:17 refers to being persuaded.

Hebrews 13:17 Be persuaded [peithô] by those who go before on the way […]

That is, persuaded by the example shown by the apostles and others, regarding faith and the right way of life. – See also the other notes, below. For more on the word peithô and its translation and meaning, see appendix 1 at the end of this article.

d The above-quoted WBS has “rule over you”, but the apostle Paul was not talking about ruling. Just as in verses 7 and 24, even here in verse 17 the Greek text has hêgeomai. Once again, here is point 1 in the entry on that word in ‘Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon’ Lexicon by Liddell and Scott (Clarendon Press, 1889):

I. Dep. to go before, lead the way, Hom., etc.:—c. dat. pers. to lead the way for him, guide, conduct, id=Hom.:—also, ὁδὸν ἡγήσασθαι to go before on the way, Lat. praeire viam, Od. […]

In the earlier discussed verse 7, the verb hêgeomai refers to certain people of Old Testament times. In verse 24 and here in verse 17, it refers to people of the first century – the apostles and others who through their example “showed the way” to others.

e Where the above-quoted WBS has “submit”, the Greek text has hupeikete (hupeikô). Since several NT passages make it clear that the apostles and elders in the saints’ fellowships were not “rulers” (Jesus was the saints’ Master and Leader), how should we then understand the phrase kai hupeikete autoi in the Greek text of that verse? The word hupeikô was combined of the prefix hupo and the verb eikô. One of the meanings of that verb was “to be like” (cf. the noun eikôn, “likeness”, “image”, “portrait”), and it could also mean “to yield”, “to comply”. Considering the context, which is about the Jewish saints being persuaded by the example set by the apostles and certain others, it is obvious that in this case, the phrase kai hupeikete autoi is to be understood as referring to the other saints “complying”, that is, following the example which they saw in the apostles and others who “went before on the way”. For more on the verb hupeikô and related words, see appendix 2.

f Regarding the wording “for they watch for your souls” which the above-quoted WBS has in the middle part of Hebrews 13:17 – the meaning of the Greek text behind that translation is considered in appendix 3.

Romans 12:8.

Many translators have put “leading” or “ruling” even into Romans 12:8, but some have added the note “or gives aid”. Here is an example:

Romans 12:8 the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, {Or gives aid} with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness. (ESV01, original footnote)

What that translation has as “leads” (with the note “or gives aid”), is in the Greek text proistêmi. Literally, that word meant “to set before”, but it had many different uses and meanings, including “to be a protector or guardian”, “to give aid”, “to care for” and so on. [g] Considering the other things mentioned in the context, it is obvious that in the case of Romans 12:8, the verb proistêmi refers to “aiding” or “caring for” or something similar.

g See the last part of the entry προιστημι in the unabridged ‘Greek-English Lexicon’ by Liddell and Scott.

1 Timothy 3:4–5 and 5:17.

In 1 Timothy 3:4 and 5, the context is that of electing elders in the saints’ fellowships. Some translators have put into verse 5 “ruling” and “taking charge” – for instance, “if a man does not know how to rule his own household, how can he take charge of the Church of God” (20CNT). But, many translations have that differently. An example:

1 Timothy 3:5 For if he knoweth not how to guide his own house well, how can he guide the church of God. (MUR)

Another translation, with some of the context:

1 Timothy 3:1 This is a trustworthy saying: “If someone aspires to be an elder, he desires an honorable position.” 2 So an elder must be a man whose life is above reproach. He must be faithful to his wife. He must exercise self-control, live wisely, and have a good reputation. He must enjoy having guests in his home, and he must be able to teach. 3 He must not be a heavy drinker or be violent. He must be gentle, not quarrelsome, and not love money. 4 He must manage his own family well, having children who respect and obey him. 5 For if a man cannot manage his own household, how can he take care [proistêmi] of God’s church? (NLT04, comment added)

It is obvious that here, the apostle Paul used the verb proistêmi in the meaning “taking care of”. [h]

In short: 1 Timothy 3:4–5 has nothing to do with “ruling”.

Then, many translators have put into 1 Timothy 5:17 wordings that make it seem that Paul said that elders were “rulers”. That manner of translating is copied from the Latin text of the Catholic Vulgate translation which has in the first part of that verse the words qui bene praesunt presbyteri duplici honore digni habeantur. But, the apostle was not talking about “giving double honour to presbyters” as the Latin text of the Vulgate makes it seem. The Greek text has presbuteroi, in this case used in its literal meaning elderly people. That whole chapter is about taking good care of old people. The article nma070.htm has some notes on 1 Timothy 5 and the matter of taking care of elderly people.

h Again, see the last part of the entry προιστημι in the unabridged ‘Greek-English Lexicon’ by Liddell and Scott.

The ‘rulers’ of Acts 13:15 and 23:5.

Many translations have in Acts 13:15 “rulers of the synagogue”. In the Greek text of that verse, the word is archisunagôgos. Now, it is not so important what the idiomatic meaning of that word might have been, because old-covenantal Jewish synagogue manners could not be taken as a model for the saints in their new-covenantal fellowships. But, it is said that just as it was in the saints’ fellowships, even in the Jewish synagogues of those days, several people, who had no “ranks”, could speak, and even interrupt each other, and so on. All could take part. In short: The manners of the saints, and even the customs in the Jewish synagogues of those days, were very different from the hierarchically controlled way things are done in many churches.

Then, many translations have in Acts 23:5 such wordings as “a ruler of your people”. Here, it must be noted that the old-covenantal high priest whom that verse refers to, was not a “ruler”. It was the Roman emperor and his officials who were the rulers in the land of Israel, in those days. The Greek text of that verse has archôn, but there is no need to go into the different meanings and nuances of that ancient Greek word. Those things are not very interesting for us today, because the Old Covenant and its priesthood were discontinued. Again: The saints did not have any mortal priests. The resurrected Jesus was and is their only priest. (Many churches have priests, but that has nothing to do with what the saints practised.) Also: God and his son Jesus do not have any mortal “deputies” or “special representatives” here on Earth today.

(Again, the article nsa060.htm considers who has biblical, spiritual or religious authority – that is, the question, who can speak for God? The article nba070.htm takes a closer look at Matthew 16:19 and the “binding and loosing” which is mentioned in that verse.)

See also the “recommended reading” section, after the appendixes below.


Appendix 1 – Regarding the verb peithô (peithesthe) in the Greek text of Hebrews 13:17.

Using the Webster version (WBS) as an example: Even though it in the case of Hebrews 13:17 and a few other places renders the verb peithô as “obey”, in most New Testament passages it translates it in a different way:

Here is how the WBS translates peithô in other passages in the epistle to the Hebrews:

Those four wordings are quite correct and clear and need no further comments. But then, in Hebrews 13:17 the WBS suddenly renders peithô as “obey” (as if the saints had “rulers”). That is misleading. – Here is what the OLB Greek lexicon has on peithô:

1) persuade
a) to persuade, i. e. to induce one by words to believe
b) to make friends of, to win one’s favour, gain one’s good will, or to seek to win one, strive to please one
c) to tranquillise
d) to persuade unto i. e. move or induce one to persuasion to do something
2) be persuaded
a) to be persuaded, to suffer one’s self to be persuaded; to be induced to believe: to have faith: in a thing
1) to believe
2) to be persuaded of a thing concerning a person
b) to listen to, obey, yield to, comply with
3) to trust, have confidence, be confident

Related words in old Greek:

  1. Anapeithô, “to bring over”, “to convince”, “to persuade”
  2. Ekpeithô, “to persuade completely”, “to over-persuade”
  3. Hupopeithô, “to persuade gradually”
  4. Katapeithô, “to persuade”
  5. Metapeithô, “to change a man’s persuasion”, in passive form “to be persuaded to change”
  6. Parapeithô, “to persuade gradually”, “to win over”, even, “to beguile”
  7. Propeithô, “to persuade beforehand”
  8. Sumpeithô, “to join or assist in persuading”, in passive form “to allow oneself to be persuaded at the same time”
  9. Peismonê, “persuasion”
  10. Peistikos, “persuasive”
  11. Apeistos, “not to be persuaded”

So, what about Hebrews 13:17? Here is a reasonable translation of the first part of that verse:

Hebrews 13:17 Be persuaded [peithô] by those who go before on the way […]

That is, persuaded by the example shown by the apostles and others, regarding faith and the right way of life.

Appendix 2 – Regarding the verb hupeikô in the Greek text of Hebrews 13:17.

Churches and churchmen want people to submit to them and obey them, and they produce bible-translations along those lines. But, what did the apostle who wrote the epistle to the Jewish saints, really say and mean?

In Hebrews 13:17, most English bible-versions have followed a Catholic “tradition” concerning the translation of that verse. The makers of the Catholic Vulgate version put into the first part of that verse the Latin wording oboedite praepositis vestris et subiacete eis ipsi. (Oboedite and praepositus = “obey” and “chief”, “commander”.) Many non-Catholic bible-translators (churchmen working for churches) have then copied the Vulgate’s manner of translating, and so, they have used such wordings as “obey those who rule over you”, “obey your leaders”, and so on.

In the Greek text of that verse, the relevant word is the verb hupeikete (hupeikô). In old Greek, that word was used in many different meanings, such as “to retire”, “to withdraw”, “to depart”, “to draw back”, “to make way”, “to yield”, “to comply”, and so on. – Let us consider what the apostle might have meant by that word, in this case. (Or the translator, in case that letter was first written in Aramaic and then translated into Greek.)

Hupeikô was composed of the prefix hupo and the verb eikô. Among many other things, that verb was also used in the meaning “to be like”. In old Greek, several words beginning with eik- had to do with copying and likeness. Some examples:

So, how should one interpret the phrase kai hupeikete autoi in the Greek text of Hebrews 13:17? It appears that the apostle was asking the other saints to “comply”, which is to say, follow the example set by those who “showed the way”. That concept is mentioned several times in the wider context in that chapter.

Appendix 3 – Regarding the verb agrupneô in the Greek text of Hebrews 13:17.

Regarding the “watching” that many bible-versions have in Hebrews 13:17 (such translations as “for they watch for your souls”): The Greek verb in question, agrupneô, could be used of “watching” in the meaning “being wakeful”, but its actual meaning had to do with lack of sleep, staying awake at nights. Literally, the verb agrupneô meant “to hunt after sleep”. It was combined of agreuô, “to hunt”, and hupnos, “sleep”. (In the Greek text of 2 Corinthians 6:5 and 11:27 we find a related word, the noun agrupnia.)

The question is, what kind of wakefulness or sleeplessness does the verb agrupnêo refer to, in the case of Hebrews 13:17?

One edition of the Williams version has this wording: “For they are ever watching in defense of your souls, as men who will have to give account of their trust”. And certainly, the apostles and elders had a responsibility in regard to the other saints’ spiritual welfare. That may even have led to sleepless nights. That could well be what the phrase autoi gar agrupnousin huper tôn psuchôn humôn in the Greek text of Hebrews 13:17 refers to. But, that did not in any way mean that the apostles or elders would have been “rulers” over the other saints.

A side-note: There is an interesting aspect to the agrupnia which is mentioned in the Greek text of 2 Corinthians 6:5 and 11:27. Those verses indicate that Paul and his companions often went sleepless.

2 Corinthians 6:5 beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights [Greek agrupnia], hunger (ESV01, highlighting and comment added)

2 Corinthians 11:27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night [agrupnia], in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. (ESV01, highlighting and comment added)

Was that sleeplessness (agrupnia) caused by worry and care for the other saints’ spiritual welfare? Or, do those verses refer to something else, such as lack of sleep caused by working at night-time? Perhaps the latter. We read:

2 Thessalonians 3:8 nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. (ESV01)

That verse records that in Thessalonica, the apostle Paul and his companions worked “night and day”, so that they would not be a burden to anyone. Paul was a craftsman, a tentmaker.

Acts 18:1–3 shows that when Paul was in Corinth, he worked in that trade. 1 Corinthians records how he noted that he had not lived at the cost of others and did not intend to do that, either. Acts 20 records how he reminded the elders from Ephesus that they knew that he had always supported himself, through manual work. And again, the above-quoted verse shows that in Thessalonica, Paul and his companions worked, night and day, so that they would not be a burden to anyone. See also 1 Thessalonians 2:9. The articles nma030.htm and nma020.htm have more on the example which Paul and his companions set, in that regard.

Please send or mention the address to this site to others. You can also link to these pages. The address to the table of contents page is biblepages.net/articles.htm

Recommended reading here at the Bible Pages, on related as well as other matters

An explanation of the short names for the bible-translations that are quoted or mentioned at this site. → nsa090.htm

What does the Bible say about authority? Who has biblical, spiritual or religious authority? Who can speak for God? → nsa060.htm

On the words and concepts “clergy” and “laity”. → nsa070.htm

What does the Bible say about ordaining or ordination? How did the saints choose their elders? Were those elders “ordained”, and did they function as “priests” of some kind? → nea020.htm

Is “servant leadership” a biblical concept? On what the Bible says about leadership among Jesus’ disciples. → nea030.htm

On the example the apostle Paul set, for others to imitate. → nma030.htm

How the saints took care of the elderly and the poor. → nma070.htm

Matthew 16:19, the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, and “bind” and “loose”. What kind of “keys” and “binding and loosing” was Jesus talking about? → nba070.htm

Acts 20:35 – what the apostle Paul meant when he reminded the elders from Ephesus that it is more blessed to give than to receive. → nma020.htm

What does the Bible say about elders? What was their role in the saints’ fellowships? → nea010.htm


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